Monday, July 27, 2015

The Lighter Side of RICHARD III

Eric Nepom as the Duke of Buckingham, Gary Strong as the Bishop of Ely, and
Peter Schuyler as King Richard, photo courtesy of Casey Campbell Photography

By Tina Arth 

Scott Palmer, Artistic Director of Hillsboro’s Bag  & Baggage, is notorious for his irreverent interpretations of Shakespeare’s hallowed output – but this summer’s plein air cartoon version of the (usually) dark and violent Richard III scales new heights of cheerful absurdity. I had read enough of the copious pre-production press to be expecting a dose of Monty Python colored with a hint of Three Stooges, but was caught off guard by (“wait for it…”) a soupçon of Barney Stinson in the mix.

Like many of Shakespeare’s works, Richard III as originally written is a bit too complex and dreary, and way too long, for some theater goers unless it simultaneously fulfills a course requirement in an English Lit class. Once Palmerized, however, it is not only tolerable, it’s actually entertaining – the lofty Shakespearean language combined with admirably low comedy (and the occasional severed head) yields a remarkably funny amalgam that keeps the audience alert and engaged throughout. Two time-honored clichés (“Now is the winter of our discontent” and “My kingdom for a horse!”) at the beginning and end of the show are a jarring reminder to the audience that we are seeing real Shakespeare stuff, no matter how dramatically altered the lens through which it is viewed.

Even as simplified by Palmer, the story itself is a bit convoluted (much like the actual history on which it is based). Luckily for the audience, all is made clear by the witty and thoroughly diverting backdrop, a graffiti-bedecked sheet that succinctly summarizes the era’s history with crude org charts, a hangman’s noose, and pithy phrases like “some other Henry” and “King = me”. The backdrop does double duty, for in addition to offering a much-abridged version of the tale it also hides the Tower of London’s unseen, but often heard, unkindness of ravens (although, given the story, perhaps the less common “conspiracy of ravens” would be more appropriate).

With the wrong cast, Palmer’s adaptation could be puerile – but the five Bag & Baggage company members and an equal number of newcomers pull off the show’s 18 roles with impressive versatility, sliding smoothly between slapstick and intense emotion. Peter Schuyler plays Richard as a murderous scamp who happily shares his somewhat distorted worldview with the audience in frequent asides – we are supposed to like him, and we do. Cassie Greer pulls off Lady Anne’s ditzy affect (and spectacular headgear) quite nicely, but her finest (long…) moment is when, as the Duchess of York, she storms off stage left – her tiny mincing steps as she s-l-o-w-l-y propels her walker across the seemingly endless steps of the Civic Center Plaza. It is a credit to the cast that they even try to keep the action going while the audience’s attention keeps shifting to Greer’s agonizing exit.
Sam Jones as Lord Rivers and Peter Schuyler as  King Richard,photo courtesy
of Casey Campbell Photography

With the aid of Melissa Heller’s colorful and flamboyant costumes (and a gargantuan wig) Gary Strong has way too much fun in his dual roles as Queen Margaret and the Bishop of Ely.  However, the best hair award must go to a newcomer, the impossibly lanky Sam Jones, who rocks Lord Rivers’ flowing tresses with a campy feminine mystique as he prances around the set figuratively (and sometimes literally) throwing himself into the action.

Shakespeare aficionados should love Bag & Baggage’s production for the same reasons that Universal Monster fans love “Young Frankenstein” – knowing the content and conventions makes the shtick even funnier. For the rest of us, Richard III is a fine way to introduce one of Shakespeare’s longer and bloodier dramas in an accessible, charming, and abbreviated format that sneaks a touch of high culture into an evening of laughter.

Bag & Baggage’s production of Richard III runs Wednesday – Saturday through August 1st with shows at 7:30 p.m. All performances are held at the Tom Hughes Civic Center Plaza, 150 E. Main Street, Hillsboro. Please bring your own chair – no seating is provided!

Monday, July 13, 2015

Agatha on the Rise: 2015 “Page to Stage” Comedy at HART

Kathleen Silloway, Aaron Morrow, and Karlyn Weaver

By Tina Arth

For the past three years, Hillsboro Artists’ Regional Theater (H.A.R.T.) has given local playwrights the opportunity to enter scenes from original plays in their “Page to Stage” competition. The 2014 winner, Sally Stember’s Agatha on the Rise, is currently being offered as a full production running through July 26th. The competition not only allows playwrights the opportunity to showcase their work, it also gives them a chance to solicit the feedback essential to refining their scripts before attempting to take them to a larger audience. Having been through this process in 2014, I can attest to its value – we made myriad small changes throughout the rehearsal period, and we were able at the close of the run to cut about 10 minutes and a complete scene out of the original show!

Author Stember has already begun this process – in her author’s notes she alludes to script changes inspired by Director Sarah Ominski, and freely admits to some huge (sorry, “Big Booty Judy”) changes as the show moved from page to stage. While the script may not yet be ready for prime time, the abundance of hearty laughs from the opening night audience attests to the play’s potential, and the experience of seeing Agatha in full production will undoubtedly give Stember an abundance of ideas on how to hone and polish an already funny show.

The mystery/comedy hovers around the story of private detective Agatha and her attempts to reunite (in both life and death) with her much-married ex-husband, Giles. The relevance of auxiliary characters is sometimes muddy – except for the two who are murdered, as they cleanly establish the secondary but essential “whodunit” plot. Any attempt to explain the story in more detail would be futile – it really needs to be seen to be (somewhat) understood.

Agatha is entertaining because the cast commits so completely to its absurdity. Aaron Morrow, as “Big Booty Judy,” is over the top (without falling over) as only a man with a heavily padded butt can be, and he does a marvelous job of balancing on some truly terrifying high heels. The irrepressible Scott Stephens brings his patented leprechaun charm to several small but diverting roles, and Karlyn Weaver uses her impressive stature and a commandingly mystic presence to create a memorable (if short-lived) “Madame Vadoma.” Leslie Inmon-Collins has the key, but somewhat thankless, role of “Agatha” – we may not understand quite why she wants Giles so fiercely, but she earns our sympathy as she schemes and spies her way back into his life. Mark Putnam as “Giles” is a sleazy scoundrel with absolutely no awareness of others – Putnam seems born to portray insensitive, narcissists with just enough superficial charm to win attention and affection from his betters.

A fundamental structural problem with the script is a severe lack of balance between the lengths of the two acts. Act I runs for over 1.5 hours, Act II for somewhat under an hour. The effect (particularly in a play with a lot of plot complexities) is audience fatigue by intermission.  With judicious editing, Stember should be able to reduce the length of Act I without sacrificing any of the best humor.

HART’s “Page to Stage” is a wonderful addition to the Washington County theater scene, both for providing a stage for unproven works and for giving talented authors the opportunity to test their material with real actors, a real director, and real audiences!

Hillsboro Artists’ Regional Theatre (HART) presents Agatha on the Rise through Sunday, July 26th, with performances Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday matinees at 2:00 p.m.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Thoroughly Modern Millie: Classic Broadway Rose Fare With Flair

By Tina Arth

When Thoroughly Modern Millie took home the Best Musical Tony Award for 2002, the competition was not all that fierce.  Mamma Mia had the populist appeal, but not much more – and Urinetown probably was not everybody’s cup of tea. Millie, on the other hand, allows for the Broadway musical touch – big ensemble numbers, eye-catching costumes, and lots of great dancing propelled by a comic-book plot that allows the audience to just sit back and enjoy – even white slavery can deliver the laughs if the context is right!

The current Broadway Rose production has everything it needs – great sets (really, very cleverly designed backdrops) that allow for speedy scene changes to keep the show moving, an amazing 12-piece orchestra under the always impressive direction of Alan D. Lytle, flawless and powerful vocal ensemble combined with Director Lyn Cramer’s delightful choreography and clever staging, and leads with the energy and joie de vivre to bring the audience to its feet at closing. Millie is not for everybody (if you don’t like musicals, you’ll hate it!) but Broadway Rose audiences are big fans of the genre, and it shows in their enthusiastic response.

The story is based on Richard Morris’ 1967 film starring Julie Andrews (and Mary Tyler Moore, and Carol Channing, and Beatrice Lillie – a can’t-miss cast). It’s 1922, and newly minted flapper Millie Dillmount arrives in NYC from the sticks to make her fortune the “modern” way, by marrying for money rather than love. She moves into a hotel for aspiring actresses run by the evil Mrs. Meers, a failed thespian turned con who impersonates a Chinese landlady while kidnapping young girls and selling them into white slavery. Millie falls for the poor but charming Jimmy, while her new friend Miss Dorothy ignites the passion of Millie’s rich boss. More kidnapping, a daring rescue, and predictable plot twists lead to everyone getting what they really need, as opposed to what they thought they wanted. Love, courage, and stenography conquer all. In other words, don’t go for the compelling story!

In a show with strong leads and no weak links, some of the most fun comes from unexpected places.  After a staid first-act presence, Joe Thiessen (as Millie’s boss Trevor Graydon) knocks it into the nosebleed section with the powerful “Ah Sweet Mystery/Falling In Love” duet, and Katie Perry (“Miss Dorothy”) is impossibly cute while pouring her heart into her half of this number.  Al Jolson might be turning in his grave, but Samson Syharath (“Bun Foo”), Heath Hyun Houghton (“Ching Ho”), and Emily Sahler (“Mrs. Meers”) are utterly captivating in the hybrid “Muquin” – a curious synthesis of Chinese and English that gives “Mammy” a whole new spin. Sahler’s absurdly cartoonish Chinese accent is hilarious once the audience gets over the unavoidable discomfort of dealing with an obvious racial stereotype. We wish the show gave Annie Kaiser (“Muzzie”) more opportunities to display her comic ability, but she nails “Only In New York” and the final, powerful note seems to go on forever.  Joel Walker (“Jimmy Smith”) is slick yet likeable as he transforms himself from cynical playboy to sincere swain, and the scene on the window ledge with Millie is convincingly dizzying.

Finally, there is Claire Avakian (“Millie”). She is ridiculously charming throughout, and especially memorable in the upbeat “Forget About the Boy” and the poignant “Gimme Gimme.” “The Speed Test” establishes her as a formidable comic, too. The audience cannot help but respond to her curious mixture of spunk and sincerity, and it is Avakian who ultimately transforms this musical froth into a well-spent evening. Thoroughly Modern Millie is anything but modern, but as homage to a golden era of musicals it is thoroughly satisfying.

Broadway Rose’s Thoroughly Modern Millie runs through July 26th at Tigard High School’s Deb Fennell Auditorium.